Another Lament On The State And Future Of Beer Writing And Blogging…

With April will come the 50th issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Quite a feat for any publication but especially one in the notoriously fickle niche of beer. Over the last decade, we’ve seen beer magazines come and go, some glossy, some very basic. The market remains a difficult place for beer publications (and at least one glossy magazine is currently teetering on the edge of calling it a day), which makes the BeerAdvocate model such an impressive feat. And more good things are set to come, with a substantial expansion of editorial pages planned, something that is nearly unheard of in print publishing these days.

For BA’s 50th issue anniversary, I had originally intended to write about the state of beer writing in the United States but, as often happens, I became sidetracked into a different but related topic area. As the topic corresponded in part to the state and nature of this blog, I figured this was as good a place as any to offer the thoughts.

I often find myself reading books by wine, spirits, and food writers. I have collected hundreds of them and browse a few every month to see how the other half lives, works, and writes. And in truth, despite receiving subscriptions to many of the beer magazines, I rarely do more than quickly flip through them. This is because most of what passes for beer writing in the United States revolves around simply giving the writer’s personal views of a product. Perhaps I am a particular type of media consumer, as I have suggested before, but others’ views of beer at the micro level do not interest me in the slightest. I just don’t have a need for the 1,000th review of Boston Lager or even the 5th review of the latest White Birch offering.

The other type of beer content that we often see, both on-line and especially in the so-called beer rags (Celebrator, Ale Street News, and the bi-monthly Brew Newspapers), is the announcement of upcoming beer releases and events. These offerings aren’t so much writing as calendar additions and press releases set to full sentences. These serve the purpose of alerting consumers, whether they be simple craft beer enthusiasts or more likely beer tickers, to the upcoming availability of a seasonal or special release. It appears that such content, which I’m not sure can properly be classified as beer writing, is growing in popularity (or at least volume) on the web. Too often such announcements simply turn into another episode of “Pining for Pliny” and celebrating rarity for its own sake. In the sub-culture of beer nerds, such content definitely has a place. Again, I’m just not interested in it.

To be fair, product reviews and announcements also constitute a marked portion of wine writing (but oddly not of spirits writing), yet the medium has somehow evolved beyond the limitations of the review and invited a broader investment of time, circumspection, and perspective. The world of wine especially has invited writers, both enthusiasts and professional, to develop their own voices. In the world of beer writing, there is far too little opinion offered (and I don’t mean regarding a particular product’s body or aroma), especially backed by any experience or individual voice. The world of wine writing offers this in spades and captures a great deal more of my reading time even though I probably drink fewer than a half-dozen glasses of wine in the course of a year. I don’t particularly enjoy wine but I have become surprisingly conversant in varietals, producers, and debates over various issues in the industry due to the breadth and quality of wine writing.

A few months ago I got into a fair amount of trouble for some comments I made on the subject and exercise of blogging about beer. And while I had intended the comments to relate to my own experience in the medium and not so much to that of non-professional writers, it struck a particular nerve with these bloggers. Over the last few months I have attempted to spend more time reviewing the work of citizen beer bloggers. The result, sadly, is not a more profound understanding of the medium but a reinforced confidence and parallel to my views on beer writing as a whole. I’ve simply not come across many unique or distinctive voices in this new online community of writers. It tends to be more of the same sort of repetitive and highly personalized content experienced in the wider market of beer writing available to consumers.

With this said, I should highlight a few writers whose sites offer something a little different from the usual beer content.

I have long respected the increasingly professional work of Ron Pattinson over at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. If you enjoy reading about beer history, politics, and a lot of old, insider numbers, his site is well worth the time spent digging in to each subject.

I also think that many writers need to take off the beer blinders directing their focus solely to product reviews, the white noise of beer writing. The bottles, cans, and pints we enjoy came from a place run by actual people, but you wouldn’t know it by the writing about the beers. One area in which wine writing (both online and in print) puts beer writing to shame is in its avowed dedication to providing the narratives and back-stories of the vintners, growers, and owners behind the wines. We rarely do this in the world of beer, instead preferring to name-check celebrity brewers or re-interview the ten most familiar names.

This is an area where citizen beer bloggers really have the opportunity to shine and provide a service to the industry they cover/write about/lavish praise over every day. I read every brewer, brewery owner, or publican interview that I come across on the web because I want to get to know the people behind the brands and places whose names I see in press releases, tweets, or on Facebook. For those bloggers who do not have a background in writing or journalism, personality profiles provide the easiest way to get your foot in the door and to develop the skills necessary to provide a beneficial service to your readers. And while brewers may not always be used to telling their stories, they are a near-uniformly friendly lot and would be foolish to turn down any chance to publicize themselves, their brands, and establishments, even to new writers.

The folks at The Full Pint do this well in their Brewmaster Spotlight as does Drink Craft Beer in its Interview section. I wish these sites did more of this type of content. Another creative (and effective promotional) interviewing tactic is the Beer Wench’s Beer Blogger Interview series. People want to read about other people, not just products they don’t have in front of them and may not be able to buy.

For those content to simply regurgitate press releases and new product announcements, I’d suggest looking at the model being developed over at BeerNews.org. If this guy ever figures out what he actually wants to do, I think we could see some exciting things there.

I’ve also enjoyed some quirky blogs, including one dedicated to understanding the science of beer flavor. Appreciating the underlying foundation of beer and flavor is always a challenging and worthwhile pursuit for the dedicated beer enthusiast.

I also continue to worry about the creep of advertorial beer writing. There are now dozens of sites across the Internet that somehow manage to convince breweries to pay to have the site’s owners review their beers. While I have long decried this practice, craft breweries, in some apparent desperation for attention, seem to be supporting this unfortunate beer shill business model.

I remember being genuinely excited when I first experienced the RSS beer heaven that was Real Simple Beer Syndication. Confronted with hundreds of beer blog entries every day, I thought for sure that some distinctive voices would result. Over the years, I find myself coming back to the professional beer writing set (not that its members are all top-notch either) for readable content. Perhaps the retread nature of so much beer writing was initially necessary as beer writing established itself. For whatever reason, the wine world has also long attracted talented writers of literature and non-fiction, daring to try and capture their passion for the grape in a new writing form. But more than 30 years into craft beer movement, the industry is still sorely lacking such commensurate writing talent.

I’ve also lamented that people covering the beer industry, like Minnesotans and clothing store clerks, never deign to offer a critical or constructive word to those around them. Beer writing is often one long, seemingly endless love song to craft brewers despite some obvious age spots appearing in the mirror. Beer writers, especially citizen bloggers, shouldn’t hesitate to fill this void with their own viewpoints, when supported in their content.

It’s time for beer writers (both professional and enthusiasts) to take the training wheels off their pens, pencils, and keyboards. It seems that we have all been content to merely step in the footprints left by the pioneering beer writers, especially Michael Jackson, despite the entirely new world of beer that we inhabit. I am hoping to witness a new era of beer writing because, in part, I believe that it is essential to the broader growth of the beer industry. When done right, such writing should serve as a catalyst for the growth of the industry, both philosophically and production-wise.

I remain thankful for the opportunity to contribute to a publication such as BeerAdvocate Magazine, where dissenting opinions are tolerated if not encouraged. And I hope to continue to offer a hopefully different and distinct perspective to the world of beer.

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Beer Blogging, To What End?

Every once in a while, I have one of those days where several outside forces converge to reveal a singular theme. Today was one of those days. It started with my re-publishing a piece I wrote for BeerAdvocate Magazine on industry writer Harry Schuhmacher. In response to that article, Alan at A Good Beer Blog released a slightly disjointed response (now cleaned up) that, I believe, took me to task for belittling beer bloggers. In that piece, I wrote of my friend Harry:

Far from a beer blogger, Schuhmacher runs a serious business dedicated to providing the beer industry with inside information and breaking news, a point reflected in his publication’s scorching $480 a year price tag.

Now, this first line wasn’t meant as a jab at beer bloggers. Nor was the contrasting point about Harry running a serious business. But perhaps they should have been. I have long been wary of blogging in general and more specifically when it comes to blogging about beer. I’ve been publishing articles on my website for about eight or nine years and converted to WordPress almost four years ago. From the earliest days, I wasn’t quite sure of the purpose served by websites dedicated to a particular individual’s thoughts on a given subject. For one, as I thought about Twitter and beer, it often devolves into a very self-absorbed activity, focused on such inane, personal details as to interest only the tiniest sub-sections of an already infinitesimally small niche. And that’s fine if that’s your aim, perhaps even therapeutic, like that old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin yells at the night sky, “I’m significant,” only to then think, “Screamed the dust speck.” Wanting to be heard is certainly a relatable aim. But for those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to a greater audience of listeners/viewers/attendees, only the frailest ego would require the faint massaging a handful of readers are able to provide.

This was followed up by the reminder that the first Beer Blogger’s Conference starts in Boulder in a few days. In terms of disclosure, I was invited to speak at the conference and even contemplated doing so after some coaxing from the Harry Schuhmacher referenced above (he hates to drink alone). But at the end of the day, having just been in Boulder a little more than a month ago, and considering that the conference doesn’t help defray the costs of its speakers, I couldn’t justify the expense. I love hanging out and enjoying beers with people in Boulder as much as the next writer, but I had to ask, to what end? The conference will be a vacation for some. For the speakers, it’s work. And unpaid work at that for the non-industry folks.

Moreover, the conference raises some concerns in my mind about beer blogging in general. While I’m certainly interested in hearing what the speakers tell the assembled scribes (and perhaps some audio will be released on-line), I’m perhaps more curious about the topics that likely won’t be covered. As beer blogging grows in numbers/importance/influence (assumed for the sake of this point), folks in the beer marketing trade will take a greater interest in cultivating their attention. Professional beer writers (myself included) have learned the hard way of the challenges posed when the worlds of marketing and writing/journalism intersect. And without rehashing the old arguments about whether bloggers are journalists, I think that we in the beer media and the industry as a whole should be concerned about the ethics of beer writing and the attempted influence of writers by beer marketers. I don’t know whether this will be a topic addressed by the assembled speakers (several of whom are industry marketers themselves), and I know it’s not very fun, but I think it would be an important topic for this first gathering.

The trifecta completed with today’s discussion of the Wikio rankings of American beer blogs. I have to admit, I am rather new to the still-foreign concept of search engine optimization and don’t really understand how this system of rankings actually works. I’ve never paid much attention to the popularity of my web site or the amount of traffic directed there. I did notice the insane spike of traffic the site received after the release of my article, The Good, the Bad, and the Drunk at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival. 60+ comments later, not including Facebook and Twitter forwards, and it was hard to miss. But besides this, as I don’t view these websites as moneymakers, I have never bothered to learn the details of these things.

Now we have Wikio releasing its Top Beer Blogs list. In terms of full disclosure, my website is not listed amongst the top blogs so feel free to write this off as sour grapes. Since the untimely demise of Real Simple Beer Syndication (RSBS), I have had to transition to Google Reader for my online reading needs. After losing all of the blogs listed on RSBS, I decided to cull my list down to what I consider to be necessary reading, about 15-20 blogs. A quick scan of the Wikio list reveals some familiar names that I follow, but I must confess that I do not know three-quarters of the listed blogs. In perusing a few of the websites, their reactions to the news of their inclusion in the Wikio rankings generally range from mild pleasure tinged with a healthy dose of skepticism to downright shock, along the lines of “Get the %&# out!.” Now I’ve never understood the Wikio rankings, nor what a “wikio consultant” is (and why Pete Brown is the latter and whether that’s related to why he is listed as the No.1 beer blog in the UK), but maybe it’ll all be explained in the coming months.

With all this said, I still have to again ask, online beer writing, to what end? To be sure, I can’t imagine that anyone is making any money at this. I can definitively say that I am not, even after trying Google ads and Amazon showcases (the latter being much better but both are a complete waste of time compared to even the least remunerative paying gig). In looking over how beer blogging websites are monetizing their operations (in the parlance of this odd, burgeoning trade), I think perhaps Alan is doing the best job. By all accounts, he has a healthy readership and solicits or accepts sponsors and ads. Out in the blogosphere (another term I hate), we’ve all hashed over the ethical concerns I have that are related to this latter point and it’s not something I care to rehash here. But he still has a day job (as do I) and I imagine he won’t be transitioning anytime soon.

Of the best known American beer writers, I know very few who do it full-time or as their primary profession. Lew Bryson is perhaps the best (and maybe only) example of a professional, full-time beer writer and having spent several hours with him over the last week, I can attest that he has to work his butt off to make that living pay off. In addition to his freelance beer writing and books, he also writes about spirits and edits a magazine to assist. That’s not just smart business, it’s what is required to make it in the beer writing business.

I started writing about beer online, as separate from my paid freelance work, because I was impressed with the early work of writer Jay Brooks. His Brookston Beer Bulletin was the first beer blog I can recall reading and it was smart, at times funny, and was a value-add to the onslaught of sameness coming from all the beer publications of the time (and often of the present). As Alan seems to want, I can only read so much of what new beers are being released and which breweries have added a new tank or of some random writer’s thoughts on the two dozen breweries and pubs he visited on a cross-country trip before I just stop picking up the free publications. Perhaps I am a particular type of media consumer, one very different from the admittedly niche based beer enthusiast. While interesting in theory, most of what goes on over at sites such as BeerNews.org doesn’t interest me. A few years back things were a bit different when it came to special beer releases. More than ten years into the industry, however, and I don’t really care about new releases. There are just too many breweries to keep track off these days.

So why write online? I publish about once or twice a month, having only twice published 10 or more posts (the other being just 11). And a lot of this is recycled content. If there was a secondary publishing market for this material, I wouldn’t release it online. In the days before the Internet, that’s how many freelance writers made their real money, by reselling previously published articles to new markets. To some extent, along the lines of being heard, I think that I post online because I enjoy having a rolling conversation with the well-known industry folks that I have mentioned (and a few that I have not, most notably Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer.

Perhaps writing on-line is a loss leader. But I doubt it for me. It must to some extent help with visibility and book promotion but I’m not sure it is more valuable than Twitter, which is succinct and about nothing if not quick and easy self-promotion. Perhaps a web site helps build brand recognition. This latter term is one I often hear bandied about with respect to beer writers and I don’t quite get it. Not to pick on a particular person, but Ashley Routson of Drink With the Wench is one of the people who frequently talk about building a brand, specifically her brand, the Beer Wench. A few other writers, such as Don Russell (“Joe Sixpack”) and Lisa Morrison (“the Beer Goddess) (both are friends), have also built what I guess can be called brands. Frankly, these monikers have always sort of felt like shticks to me, especially the Wench one (very successful too it appears), which is probably what they are. And maybe that works, I can’t say. My website is called BeerScribe.com but I don’t put myself out there as the BeerScribe as Michael Jackson once did, via trademark by the way, as the Beer Hunter and Whisky Chaser. Perhaps I should but I doubt it. Even by way of promotion, the website seems like a pretty big loss and not much of a leader in terms of effort put forward.

Occasionally I think about how to monetize my efforts on the web and I always remember that very few if any media outlets have figured out that troubling trick. I look at the world of wine writing and wonder whether these folks, so often sources of inspiration and direction for both brewers, marketers, and beer writers, have figured it out. And now I’m thinking about just how much money I’ve lost writing this piece, which has taken me a little more than an hour and a half to research and write.

Every other week or so I get an email from an aspiring beer writer asking how to become a professional beer writer or with a book idea to pitch. And I try to help them as best I can, all while wondering what kind of chance they really have at any type of success.

While I find these issues interesting, I’m not likely to resolve them anytime soon. I am fortunate enough to have a day job that I enjoy at least as much as my writing gigs and I have no intention or interest in giving it all up for the world of beer. That point of distinction does seem to separate me from many on the fringes of the beer industry, be they beer writers, bloggers, or homebrewers aspiring to turn pro.

Then my mind comes back to one guy: Harry Schuhmacher. In an unpublished quote, Harry told me:

Our publication is expensive by design, not blunder. And we don’t accept advertising. As the Internet has made news ubiquitous, exclusive information that you can’t find anywhere else still commands a price. And people are willing to pay for it.

I bet he doesn’t sit around wondering how to monetize his time on-line.

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The Busy Upcoming Week and Last Minute Great American Beer Festival Thoughts…

Through a combination of events, things have been very quiet here in recent times (a scant 9 posts in two months or more, and most of that recycled BeerAdvocate Mag articles and columns). My law practice, which is my near full-time profession, has been extraordinarily busy this summer and early fall and it will likely continue for another month before it slows down. Despite all of the long hours, I’ve actually enjoyed the crush of legal work and the interesting issues I’ve been tackling. And last month I was named one of 25 “Up and Coming Lawyers” by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a nice acknowledgment of my work on behalf of indigent clients. Despite the crush of legal work, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on the road this summer. When I wasn’t clocking long hours at the office or in court this summer, I spent nearly a month in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Add to that the week I enjoyed in San Francisco early this summer, and I’ve spent an unusual amount of time on the West Coast. This has sadly come at the expense of travel through my home region of New England and this will be the first November in a few that I won’t be roaming around Franconia or Wallonia. During my travels, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting some very interesting beer people and exploring the respective brewing and bar scenes of Oregon, Seattle, San Fran, and Alaska. I’ve banked a lot of solid material and interviews (including with Dick Cantwell of Elysian and Geoff Larson of Alaskan) and I hope to find some time to write on these intriguing places.

In a few days, I’ll be off to Denver, with a brief stop in Colorado Springs, for my annual trip to the Great American Beer Festival. The festival has grown at an extraordinary pace in recent years, from a comfortable event in Currigan Hall to a massive beer carnival in the new convention center. The event sold out in record time this year and it promises to be the biggest event yet. And while I perhaps enjoy visiting the fest less than I have in the past, I am curious to see how the Brewers Association handles the growth of their chief money-making machine. I’m interested in seeing just how much Anheuser-Busch pushes its new American Ale, how consumers and industry folks alike respond to it, and whether there are any signs that the Brewers Association, with its stability and growing self-confidence, is preparing to show the big three the door. I’m also interested to see how regional craft beer organizations, including the Philadelphia Beer Week people, promote their local markets at an event more traditionally focused on promoting craft beer as a national product. I’m also looking forward to reconnecting with friends in the beer world from all parts of the United States and abroad.

And with any luck, upon my return I may have a few minutes to actually clear my notebook and write a few posts. Cheers.

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Welcome to the BeerScribe.com Notebook

Though I’ve long been wary of blogs, this new feature will allow me to post smaller bits of information that would likely go unreported in my other writing gigs.  The Notebook will not focus any single topic but will instead serve as a medium for reporting the occasional piece of beer industry news or short-form opinion.  It will also give me the opportunity to update The Good Beer Guide To New England in a timely and organized fashion. This should be considered a very soft launch as I’m still getting used to the software and regularity of posting articles online. 

Cheers!

Andy Crouch
www.beerscribe.com

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